Ninety-nine years ago today, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby dipped his wooden pen into an inkwell and certified the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. In that quiet moment, at 8 a.m., cloistered in his home on K Street in Washington, his mundane act granted voting rights to American women. There was no fanfare, no photographer, and no suffrage leader present to witness the momentous occasion.
Alice Paul, the quirky Quaker from New Jersey who led the long and exhausting struggle for the passage of the 19th Amendment, had arranged for a motion picture recording and photographer to capture that historic moment, but Colby purposefully prevented her from being a witness. His refusal to have her there was punishment for her activism, which included the first-of-their-kind protests that she organized in front of the White House, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and a decade of relentless grassroots organizing from coast to coast.
While Paul was dejected to learn the amendment had been signed without her there, she raised a glass of grape juice (this was during Prohibition, after all) for a brief celebration and moved on to continue the fight for equality.
This is what women do. They get the job done.
Women were — and are — so often denied credit for their achievements. They earn lower paychecks for the same work as men and they are elected less frequently. They are talked over in meetings and passed over for promotions. Their accomplishments are hijacked by men. And they don’t receive the honors they deserve. Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin canceled plans to have Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved suffragist and leader in the Underground Railroad, appear on the $20 bill by 2020.
Longstanding cultural imperative for females to be modest and quiet are at the root of so many qualitative inequalities evident in boardrooms, sports, and in government representation. They don’t get or often even seek (why bother if no one listens!) credit for their work and it all becomes a self-fulfilling cycle that limits progress and opportunity.
Paul believed she could change the law before she could change the culture. She knew that winning voting rights was an essential step in making America a real democracy. But because the U.S. Constitution does not include women — the words woman or women do not appear anywhere at all in that hallowed document — that there was both a literal and figurative, cultural and legal erasure of her gender. That was perhaps the ultimate lack of acknowledgment.
So she set out to fix that, writing the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex,” the ERA states.
With that simple sentence she hoped women would earn more rights — at home, at work, in society — and for five decades, she dedicated her life to making this happen. Congress finally approved the ERA in 1972 but the legislation fell three states short of the necessary 38 for ratification before the 1982 deadline.
Now, with the #MeToo Movement exposing the pervasiveness of sexism, the ERA has a new life. In the last two years, Illinois and Nevada have ratified the amendment; there is legislation in Congress to remove any time limit for final passage; and organizers believe Virginia, after a close attempt earlier this year, could be the final state to ratify the ERA, in 2020. Women are finding their collective voices. They are demanding not only that their bosses recognize their own accomplishments (“I led that team”) but they are calling out what is wrong when they see it.
This massive shift is something Alice Paul certainly hoped for. Though she never sought attention for herself — only for the cause — her modesty compounded the fact that American history books have overlooked her. She lived for decades in relative obscurity before dying a pauper in a nursing home in 1977. But a new generation, and new movements, are building upon her legacy.
Women of color, whose voting rights were systematically stripped away at the state level on the heels of the 19th Amendment, are now leading the fight not just for voting rights (see Stacey Abrams, in Georgia), but for the ERA, too, and they deserve to be acknowledged. There’s State Senator Pat Spearman of Nevada, Jennifer Carroll Foy of the Virginia House of Delegates, Carol Jenkins of the ERA Coalition, and Democratic Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, to name just a few.
Bella Abzug transformed August 26th into Women’s Equality Day, and it is now an annual trending hashtag on Twitter, complete with threads about all the ways women do not have equality, including discussions about who controls the media, the economy and the healthcare system. But there are subtle cultural changes happening — from putting diaper changing tables into men’s rooms to having Mormon’s say they are no longer opposed to the ERA.
So much has changed since our last Constitutional Amendment (limiting Congressional pay, in 1993). Our definition of equality has expanded, as has our recognition of all the ways this country, indeed our world, is unequal to women. And yet, while we may be more willing and able to acknowledge inequality, explicitly granting equality in the Constitution is the obvious next step.
When that happens, I can picture people everywhere raising a glass to celebrate not just the milestone, but also the woman who wrote the legislation and those who worked tirelessly for its ratification.
Tina Cassidy writes about women and culture. She is the author, most recently, of Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the Right to Vote.